Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 16

by Victor Sullivan © 2015    Mobility & Ghost Stories 

Over time, Johnnie's donkey-cart acquired several money-earning tools. The first of these was a hand operated grindstone that put a keen edge on many a knife and chisel. Johnnie would arrive in his donkey-cart outside a farmhouse and call to the occupants to bring out their knives to be sharpened. Willing children would be invited to bring a jug of water and then turn the handle of the grindstone while Johnnie skillfully honed the blades. Such was the demand for his sharpening services that he was obliged to add a second, coarser, grindstone for sharpening heavy axes and that essential peat-cutting tool, the sleán. 
Word reached Johnnie that one of Castletown Bere's two cobblers had been obliged to give up his shoe and boot repairing services because both of his hands had become 'all twisted with the pains and his only son had run away to sea.' Johnnie felt that a visit to the old craftsman would not be time wasted and so it proved. The man was well aware of Johnnie's reputation for repairing horse-harness, so boots and shoes would be no problem. In fact, Johnnie Gill had, from an early age, successfully carried out boot and shoe repairs. Johnnie bought many of the cobbler's tools and his stock of leather. He also listed the principal clients as dictated by the retiring cobbler. As part of the transaction, Johnnnie was to receive some lessons in the finer points of shoe-making . They then retired to Johnnie's usual bar where he lay on Eureka on the bar floor and the old ex-cobbler sat on a low fish-box beside him. The symbolic cobbler's last was placed on the saw-dust covered floor between their glasses. Many hours later, kind bar patrons unknown hoisted Johnnie and Eureka onto his cart, together with his newly acquired cobbler's last and other acquisitions, and launched Ribbon in the direction of the Gill farm. 
But it was not at Gill's farmhouse that Johnnie awoke. The unfamiliar, neglected buildings and the overgrown bushes seemed to be part of a dream. Then, slowly, his thumping brain cleared a little, realisation dawned and he remembered poor old Molly O'Hanrahan's donkey! That's where they were! At Molly's abandoned cottage. Ribbon, unaided, had simply returned to her old home while Johnnie had most certainly NOT been in control! He vowed that henceforth he would be a 'One-Pint and no more' drinker. It was a vow that he almost kept.

On a trip to Cahermore, five miles to the west of Castletown Bere, Johnnie delivered a set of chairs. While there, his services were called upon to sharpen knives, repair shoes, and stitch harness. It proved to be a long day as word went around that he was working in the area. People were still bringing him more jobs as darkness fell. He was invited to 'stay the night' and was given a substantial meal. That night he slept in his client's kitchen, on Eureka, between the family's big sheepdog and the banked down, open fire. Awake before anyone else in the house, Johnnie ventured outside on Eureka, to find that Ribbon had already been fed, most likely by the same person who had left a pile of harness outside the door that would require at least another day's work. On seeing the surprise workload, Johnnie's generous hosts invited him to 'Stay the night' yet again and the profitable experience became a routine. In the years that followed, Johnnie was welcomed into several houses where he could 'Stay the night' on his work circuit that included the villages of Cahermore, Allihies, Urhin, Eyeries, Ardgroom and Adrigole. However, not every family was willing to have the quaint cripple within their home as many children, and several mature adults, were intimidated by his appearance as he disembarked from his cart and dragged himself about on Eureka, sometimes wearing Cromwell. It was not unusual for very young children to run away from him in tears, much to his regret.

Johnnie's increasing practice of 'Staying the night' had an unexpected social effect. It was considered quite normal for some houses to have a reputation as a Scríocting House where neighbours would gather regularly to play cards, tell stories, gossip, sing ballads, play a fiddle and even dance. A really good evening's entertainment could sometimes continue into the early hours of the morning. Such homes tended to offer 'Stay the night' invitations and Johnnie Gill found the cheerful evenings much to his liking. Thanks mainly to Susan's early tuition and her school reading books, together with the reading material he had salvaged from the Dunboy Castle bonfire many years earlier, Johnnie discovered that he had a flair for story-telling. It was a time when the ability to read was not yet the established norm in the area and a good storyteller was always welcome in a Scríocting House. Johnnie's late-night ghost-stories became notorious for scaring people. He usually set the scenes locally, very locally, so that his listeners, when on their way home, would have to pass the vividly described and easily identifiable roadside boulder or tree at the very spot where the hideous, supernatural event had taken place in his story… and might be about to be repeated …. 
On at least one occasion, and probably on several more, while telling one of his localised horror stories, Johnnie himself became so frightened by the ghastly details he had described so vividly, that he had to stay at the scríocting house overnight. He was simply too scared to pass the roadside pile of stones where he had set the scene of his story. However, there was a genuine historical horror event associated with that particular pile of overgrown stones where Johnnie set some of his yarns. The pile of stones had once been a wretched hovel in which an entire family had died of cholera in 1832. In that grim year the people were so terrified of catching the dreaded disease from dead bodies that, instead of reporting the deaths, procuring coffins and arranging funerals, the neighbours had simply stuffed gorse bushes into the tiny thatched cabin and set it alight with the corpses still inside, then they tumbled the stone walls in on top of whatever remained. Children were warned never to go near, or pick blackberries from around the overgrown remains of the hovel because: "Those blackberries belong to The Others."
Johnnie's story-telling reputation gave him further publicity for his more ordinary, practical services. Many of the younger people knew him as 'Johnnie Wheels' for obvious reasons, a nickname that he was quite proud of. Unlike many able-bodied men in the area, he was always fully employed, in spite of his physical disadvantages. He invariably carried a fistful of coins in a pocket, a rare thing among his peers. 
Johnnie's rota of 'Visitations' meant that he and Ribbon might not appear at the Gill farm for several days at a time. On his eventual return he would quickly assemble a batch of chairs or, if he had no actual orders, he would produce bundles of chair-legs or other components, ready to be assembled at short notice. Harness repairs were often required urgently resulting from some incident such as a cart capsize or a bolting horse. Someone always knew where to contact him in an emergency because Johnnie advertised his travel plans widely.

No comments:

Post a Comment